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Linus Gregoriadis
Linus Gregoriadis 14 November 2018

How digital trends are shaping the future of charities

In an age increasingly influenced by digital technology, charities are being forced to rethink the role technology plays in their operations, how it can support their core purpose, and what that means in terms of organisational strategy and design.

Below are some of the key lessons from a Technology Leaders’ roundtable held in London in September, hosted by Digital Doughnut in partnership with Wirehive

The roundtable brought together CIOs and heads of digital from a broad spectrum of UK charities to discuss a range of digital-related issues, including what digital means for charities and how technology can be used to build trust in charities and develop their relationships with supporters.

Here are the main takeaways from the follow-up Charities and the Digital Future report, now available for free from Digital Doughnut.  

Digital is moving from being a channel to being core to charities’ purpose and ambitions.

Session moderator Owen Valentine Pringle, partner at consultancy The Arc Group, pointed out that society’s adoption of interactive technology means that charities - like all other businesses - need to see digital less as a transactional mechanism, and more as something central to their core purpose.

For many of those attending the roundtable the term ‘digital’ itself can be a hindrance because of the lack of clarity about what this term means. 

Wirehive CEO Robert Belgrave talked about how the term covers everything from ‘fluffy digital marketing right through to hardcore data science’. NSPCC Head of Digital Clive Gardiner described abandoning an early attempt to drop the word digital, instead retaining and explaining it to give his board the information they needed now, with the aspiration of getting rid of it in the future when the organisation was more digitally integrated.

The appointment of board-level chief information officers is a crucial step in moving digital to the heart of what a charity does. Adam Lennon, recently-appointed CIO of Unicef, described his role not as being about digital, but as dealing ‘with business problems in business terms, and creating business solutions’.

CIOs must be the stewards of data and technology in the quest to create an organisation fit for the digital world.

The problems charities face in trying to embed digital capabilities across the organisation are the same as those faced by commercial operations, but attendees felt that some of them are more significant in this sector.

They talked about the problems of unifying their organisation on a single platform, when different departments were used to different systems. At the same time, the rise of SaaS and cloud-based technologies have made it easy for people to deploy point solutions as they feel they need them, without strategic oversight from IT.

One of the key ideas that was discussed at the event was the need for users to feel ownership both of any technology put in front of them, and of the problems it is meant to address.

Phil Sherwin, CIO, Royal Air Forces Association, said: “We can only provide the infrastructure, the users have to run with it. And if they don’t feel like they own it, they’ll just go off and do their own thing.”

The solution, in his view, is to bring all the organisation’s data together in one place to create ‘a single source of truth’ that everyone can access, that everyone feels they own, so that everyone understands that their data contributes to the success of the entire organisation.

Unicef’s Lennon put it another way: “The CIO role is about technology and data but I don’t own those things. We have a finance department, but they don’t own the money, they’re stewards of it. I don’t own the technology and the data, I steward it.”

Charities must focus on building trust and relationships.

With the issue of trust very much in the spotlight this year for charities, session moderator Pringle asked roundtable attendees how they were using digital technology to address this challenge.

Tiffany Hall, CIO at Cancer Research UK, talked about the test she has introduced to her board, which involves imagining the organisation is subject to the Freedom of Information Act.

“We’re thinking about how we spend supporters’ money, and how they’d react if that information was in the public domain,” she said. World Vision CTO David Allsopp talked about the need to be as transparent as possible, to the point of ‘being transparent about the things you can’t be transparent about’.

Wirehive’s Belgrave argued that improving transparency is a key role for digital technology. “Digital offers the opportunity to be transparent in ways that weren’t previously possible,” he said. “Some of the new areas of technology, for example Blockchain, look particularly promising. It’s still a fledgling technology, so we haven’t really started to see the value yet, but it is coming.

“Or you’ve got Cancer Research doing VR tours of their labs, which is a great way of bringing people into the organisation and showing them how their money is being spent. The challenge is to decide which areas of the organisation we can open up, and which we can’t.”

Growing importance of service design.

There were also predictions that the technologist’s role will change dramatically in the next few years, moving to become heads of service design.

“My role is to push through digital transformation, but in five years’ time I see it as being about services,” said Samantha Gerson, Head of Digital Solutions at the Royal Society for Blind Children (RSBC). “We’ll become service designers, people who own journeys and audiences within the organisation, and look at what has to happen at every touchpoint.”

This change is already happening, with a number of attendees saying they are currently recruiting service designers.

For some, they form part of the process of migrating digital expertise from a dedicated department to the wider business, working with different areas of the organisation to raise skill levels while also providing a central source of assistance for those already trained.

Download the full Charities and the Digital Future report now to learn more

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